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Carving a Native Kwakwaka'wakw Totem Pole With Rupert Scow

Xwi Xwi

Xwi Xwi

Rupert Scow patiently teaching us to carve a small totem pole

Rupert Scow patiently teaching us to carve a small totem pole

Kwakwaka'wakw-Style Carving: Learning Carving With Rupert Scow

I was very excited when I learned that Rupert Scow was offering a class in West Coast Native Carving, Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) style. Rupert is a West Coast native carving teacher from the village of Gwa'yasdums on Gilford Island across from Alert Bay.

The class was to be held at Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast in Southwestern BC. I very much wanted to take the class but didn't know if it would be too hard for me. I was afraid I would not be able to keep up with the other carvers. The course was advertised as suitable for intermediate and advanced carvers, which I am, but we were advised to bring adzes.

I have made an adz (which is a carving tool that is sort of a cross between an ax and a gouge). I own two adzes. But despite excellent instruction and encouragement from friends and teachers, I have never really been able to master the adz, so instead, I usually use a band saw, gouges, and crooked and straight blades. Carvers who master the smooth slicing chop of adzing can remove a lot of wood effectively—but not me. When I try to use my adz, I chop away and get sore wrists and blisters and risk chopping my own arms and legs and people around me.

When I was a child growing up in Vancouver, I loved to stare up at the many totem poles in Stanley Park and at the University of British Columbia. I am ashamed to say as kids, we used to climb on the poles and dare each other to put our hands in the gaping mouths. I always preferred the dramatic multi-colored carvings from the northern part of Vancouver Island. In those days, this Aboriginal first nation was mistakenly called Kwakiutl, an error made in part because the pronunciation is hard for native English speakers.

Once when I was little, I saved my allowance until I had $10 and took the bus downtown to the Hudson's Bay Company department store. My aunt worked in the "Indian" souvenir department and sold me a small, brightly painted pole Kwakiutl style, which I treasured and still have 60 years later.

How to Identify Kwakwaka'wakw Carvings

One way to differentiate a Kwakwaka'wakw carving from the equally beautiful Haida or Gitxsan Wesuwetan carvings is in the use of color. The Haida and Gitxsannations use mainly or exclusively red and black accents on natural wood. The Kwakwaka'wakw often cover the carving with color: white, red, and black form lines and secondary colors brown, green, yellow, and orange.

Another way to differentiate is to look at the shapes. Traditionally, the Haida carvings are flatter, and the Kwakwaka'wakw carvings are more deeply carved and rounded. Kwakwaka'wakw style has been called the baroque of West Coast carving because of the use of dramatic, exaggerated shapes and bright colors. The large masks with many moving parts manipulated by strings must look fantastic in the longhouse dances.

In those same years, the 1950s, I watched native master carvers carving gigantic poles for the University of British Columbia and the Royal Victoria Museum. It seemed like magic watching the dramatic faces and animals emerging from the wood. It never occurred to me that I could learn to carve these figures.

Rupert Scow comes from a line of carvers living in the Alert Bay/Gilford Island area of Northern Vancouver Island. His ancestors were famous for their beautifully carved totem poles and articulated masks. These masks were worn by the costumed dancers in the dance dramas of the potlatch. A potlatch is a festival of family honor where, in the old days, families gained status and respect based not on how much wealth they had but on how much wealth they were able to give away.

During our five-day carving course, I hoped that Rupert would tell us stories about the longhouse celebrations and about the spirits and family crests depicted by the masks.

Brightly painted Kwakwaka'wakw mask by Rupert Scow

Brightly painted Kwakwaka'wakw mask by Rupert Scow

Moon Mask-Gitxsan Wetsuweten-style carving. Note the flatter flowing planes and the sparser painting using mainly black and red accent colors with carved formline design and inlay.

Moon Mask-Gitxsan Wetsuweten-style carving. Note the flatter flowing planes and the sparser painting using mainly black and red accent colors with carved formline design and inlay.

Face detail from Maori totem pole at Rotorua Maori Cultural Ceter. Note the simple  facial features with elaborate facial lines to mimic the Maroir identifying tattoos.

Face detail from Maori totem pole at Rotorua Maori Cultural Ceter. Note the simple facial features with elaborate facial lines to mimic the Maroir identifying tattoos.

Different Styles of Carving

Above, you see examples of three different carving styles:


This mask was carved by Rupert Scow. Its typical Kwakwaka'wakw style from Northern Vancouver Island shows bright colors, dramatic facial features, cedar bark decoration. This mask is suitable for dancing in the dim light of a longhouse ceremony.

Gitxan Westuetan

This mask is in the style of North Western British Columbia. This moon mask is carved and photographed by Robert Barratt. It has fine lines, finely carved formline, and beautiful inlay following the style of Robert Barrat's mentor Norman Tate. Robert Barratt teaches formline carving, mask making, and other wonderful courses.


I took this photo in Rotorua, New Zealand. This face is from a pole at the Maori cultural center. In Maori culture, each individual had his or her unique facial tattoos of curved lines. Maori masks and sculptures are often more roughly carved than this example, and the older figures were often preserved with a red ochre coating. I was unable to study Maori carving as people I asked said it is traditionally not women's work to carve. I am sure someone would have taught me if I had more time to look.

Can you see the similarities and differences?

Our Totem Pole Carving Course With Rupert Scow

The carving course was organized by Joanne, Andrew Dunkerton's wife. It took place on their property in the large, bright, luxurious, two-level workshop built by Andrew on his property in the woods of Upper Roberts Creek. Joanne provided excellent meals. Carvers camped on Joanne and Andrew's large forested property or stayed in nearby B&Bs.

The only anxiety I had was would I be able to keep up with the other carvers. And I was not alone. Hugh from Edmonton confided that he had been hopelessly slow in the last course and The other carvers had to wait for him.

Hugh said: "I want to carve first nations style-But there are no first nations carving teachers in Edmonton."

Hugh was a retired surgeon, and he has been practicing carving a lot lately. As the five-day course progressed, none of us could keep up with Hugh.

I was totally relieved when I learned that I would not have to adze.

"We will save at least a day of carving by drawing the pattern on the cedar with templates," said Rupert. We chose our first growth cedar pieces and traced the front and side patterns on the wood. I didn't notice the tiny traces of wormholes in the piece of cedar I chose. Big mistake!

For insurance purposes, Andrew did the power cutting for us. After we had traced the patterns onto our cedar blocks, he cut out our totem pole blancs on one of his bandsaws. Already the totem design was recognizable—an eagle sitting on the shoulders of a strong bear.

Rupert Scow provides clear step-by-step instruction which enabled students to establish and maintain symmetry in the totem-symetry right left and in-depth of the carving. Apparently, in the old days, symmetry was not so valued as it is in modern times. Currently, symmetry is one of the marks of an excellent carving. Some other criteria are good design, smooth balance cuts, and even flowing angles. And the eyes need to be expressive but not crossed or walleyed.

After we marked the center lines and lines evenly out from the center, we traced elements like the eagle's wing, the bear's arm and head, onto the wood using tracing paper. Rupert showed us how to use clear rulers, templates, and divider compasses to ensure symmetry as we carved the pole element by element.

It was a joy to work in such a lovely workshop. We took turns choosing music-jazz, rock, or no music, just storytelling. Rupert told some family carving stories and told about the spirits of some masks. Karen, one of the carving students, has a degree in anthropology and is very knowledgeable about West Coast Native culture. She is also a good storyteller.

Our Carving Course Was Intense

The carving course started with a meet-and-greet wine and cheese party Sunday night in Rupert's studio. People brought friends, and other carvers were welcome. It was a nice relaxing way to start the course. Monday morning, we began working enthusiastically and carved hard all morning and took few breaks except to stretch and inspect each other's progress. We were happy when Joanne showed up with lunch at 12 noon. Joanne is a great cook, and the food she provided was a delicious highlight of the course.

During lunchtime, we talked about carving, admired Rupert's projects-a grouse mask and a large transformation mask that he was carving for Karen. He worked hard after our classes and had it finished by Saturday. It was also interesting to look at Andrew's masks and projects and admire his workshop, which is filled with equipment, wood, antique tools, and many wonderful carvings. We particularly like Andrew's carved skull rattles, which are anatomically correct.

The Poles Take Shape

At lunch hour we also looked at carving books, talked carving, and admired Rupert's big transformation mask. Then it was time to go back to work. We all took turns picking music to carve by. When it was my turn I told stories and asked for stories from the carvers and Rupert.

Rupert told us the story of Kolus the bird on his great grandfather's headdress. In ceremonies, the chiefs are permitted to wear headdresses with their clan crests. The ceremonies could go on for weeks, with the host village feeding and housing many visitors who paddled over from villages in neighboring areas. Kolus came down from his celestial home and married a Scow woman ancestor. Through this marriage, the Scows attained high ranking in their community. Rupert carved a mask telling this story.

Rupert told us about his culture, telling us how he and his brother Leonard Scow started caving in the Workshop in their village. The boys were young and enthusiastic. Skilled carvers, including Wayne Alfred, Beau Dick, and others, worked in this shop and gave the boys pointers. Rupert and Leonard became so fascinated by carving that they would spend up to 20 hours at a time carving. Their mother would bring them food. She also carved.

Rupert said, "We learned fast. We worked hard. Carving, it must be in our blood." Rupert has great carving ancestors. Mungo Martin is on his mother's side of the family.

We enjoyed Rupert's stories and the music, and most of all, the carving. We worked hard and got a lot of the totem done, but we were still working on the eye details and had not begun to sand and paint when suddenly the five days were up, and the class was finished. Where had the time gone?

If anyone wants to attend a course in the future, or if you wish to contact Rupert Scow, you can email Andrew and Joanne Dunkerton in Roberts Creek:

You can also look at other carvings by Rupert by browsing the galleries that come up when you Google "Rupert Scow."


marshacanada (author) from Vancouver BC on April 30, 2012:

Many Thanks for your comment kmaskreations. I have tried carving Cypress Knees-its an interesting wood.Lovely designs in the grain,great for carving gnomes and little elf-like creatures.You need a really sharp carving tools and understanding of grain with that type of wood. In that respect cypress knees are like red cedar.

kmaskreations on April 25, 2012:

Very informative and educational hub! So much info! I sell cypress knees at my Ebay store, Storage Finds by Tomka. I believe most carvers use them for santas and gnomes. Keep up the good work! Voted up, useful, interesting, beautiful and awesome!

marshacanada (author) from Vancouver BC on October 15, 2011:

Thanks everyone for your encouraging comments. I am back home now and when I get over my jet lag I will write some more hubs.

I saw some great wood carvings in Spain and found a weathered sheep's skelleton. I picked up the knuckle bone from the ground while hiking over the Pyrenees from France into Spain, and carved two faces into it: laughing on one side and frowning on the other.

Levi from New Mexico on September 07, 2011:

Well, when you get back from hiking we will be expecting a Hub. ;) lol

SY on September 06, 2011:

Very artistic Totem poles and wood carving is a nice hobby that can also earn you a good income. Thanks for sharing.

marshacanada (author) from Vancouver BC on September 05, 2011:

Many many thanks everyone-Sorry I cant thank each of you personally. I am delighted that you liked this hub. I loved carving my totem pole and will put a photo of it up and finished when I get back from my hiking trip and get it done.

Rupert Scow is teaching a Moon Mask course which I will miss-and then Rupert and Andrew plan to carve a BIG Totem pole. This will be exciting to watch and photograph and maybe I can help. Once I worked on a large log with a lot of people-it's labour intensive but feels very good.

Paul Cronin from Winnipeg on September 05, 2011:

Really well illustrated, When I was in Victoria a few years ago, I couldn't take my eyes off the amazing Totem , Now we can actually learn how to carve these beautiful totem poles ourselves, fantastic! Thanks for sharing your expertise on this. Voted Up and Awesome!

ajayshah2005 from Mid Asia on September 05, 2011:

great photos!!! The hub was really interesting!! Loved to read it!!! Voted Up!!!

JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on September 05, 2011:

Congratulations on being selected for the Hub of the Day!

Super Awesome Hub with Super Awesome Photos! This is so cool, I want to try it! I bet there is some very interesting History as well that tells a story in each of the carvings. I will vote up and share!


mib56789 on September 05, 2011:

I agree with the HUBPages Team. This HUB is OUTSTANDING!!

marellen on September 05, 2011:

What an interesting hub and how much fun you had. Thank you for sharing this with us...I love learning something new and this hub was so informative.

Congrats on being hub of the day.

feelhungry on September 05, 2011:

I used to learn craving when I was in high school. I really love all your professional craving work. ;-)